As someone who has been actively critical (protesting, committing civil disobedience, producing alternative media) of the U.S. government’s imperial foreign policy (among other things), watching the American media’s spin at the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Games was similar to being on one of those carnival rides that tilt and spin and go up and down really fast, causing post-ride regurgitation. This, regardless of the fact that I love sports and no matter how disgusting the ads and the politics, I’ll watch them anyway.
Amid media chit-chat about how politics should be kept out of sports, what is really meant is that the wrong kind of politics should be kept out of sports. For instance, U.S. announcers can refer to China’s human rights violations, which there are, of course (without too many specifics, lest people note that other nations are committing similar or worse violations). But when the Afghan contingent marches into the stadium, U.S. announcers cheerily refer to that country’s recent "troubles."
Troubles? Cut to Bush in the special dignitaries’ box, as announcers talk about his diplomatic skills. In subsequent interviews, according to NBC, "The president said he pressed Hu Jintao on a number of issues during his formal meeting with the Chinese president, including human rights and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran." Hmm. Who better to criticize these things, but the ruler of a country with the biggest nuclear arsenal on the planet?
A Washington Post news and opinion article, "The Stakes at the Beijing Olympics," reports of Bush’s criticizing China for jailing dissidents. China responded by telling the world to "butt out of its affairs." The article wonders at the fate of human freedom if that’s the "extent of Bush’s efforts to reign in China," then hopes he can "wring some good from these Games that the world allowed—with little protest—to take place in a ‘police state’."
So politics are clearly the name of the (Olympic) game as long as it’s the right politics. The media cannot say something like, "The president of the U.S., an imperial, murdering, invading, civil rights destroying, violator of the Geneva Conventions and international law, was in Beijing to promote U.S. business interests." It’s hard, then, to cut away to a commercial for Pepsi whose blue can is now red and whose slogan during the Olympics is "go Red for China." But maybe not. Who cares about the invading and murdering when "Pepsi can now advertise its product to an untouched market of more than 1 billion" (Dave Zirin, "Olympic Trials, the Nation, July 2008).
The U.S. media can devote lots of positive coverage to the anti-China torch demonstrations, but barely mention anti-Iraq war protests, which drew hundreds of thousands ("Carrying a Torch for Anti-China Protests" by Julie Hollar, Extra!, July/August 2008). However, when Russia sent troops to Georgia a week after the Opening Ceremony, Time Magazine (online) articles urged people to protest and praised Bush for promising to send troops (at this writing)—without mentioning that doing so would be sort of like Russia sending soldiers to Vermont, if it seceded.
In a Time article, "The Russian Empire Strikes Back," Robert Baer writes: "Russia’s invasion of Georgia has less to do with South Ossetia than with a Russia that never reconciled itself to losing an empire—or to being treated like a second-rate power all these years. Russia’s resentment has only grown as oil prices have risen, turning Russia, with the 5 million bbl. of oil it exports a day, into a first-world economic power. It was only a matter of time, then, before Russia taught the world a lesson." Invasion? Oil? Empire? Hmm. That sounds sooooo familiar.
Returning to the Opening Ceremony, U.S. TV announcers, anticipating the arrival of the Iraqi contingent in the stadium, wondered if the Chinese spectators would be less than welcoming. They didn’t really give a reason for this, but they clearly meant Saddam and the WMDs and al Qaeda. A few days later the NYT ran an article titled "For Iraqi Rowers, Getting to Beijing Was a Victory in Itself." The author reports the "exciting story" of two Iraqi rowers who, against all odds, managed to get to the Olympics. They quote one of them saying, "We feel so great and so happy that we are here because…we want to show the good side of Iraq." The bad side turns out to be, according to the article, Saddam Hussein and internal civil strife, but no mention of a U.S. invasion, economic sanctions, etc. The article quotes a U.S. athlete saying, "‘I think it’s fantastic to look at them and realize there’s a universal quality in every Olympian and that’s overcoming challenge…but some challenges are harder than others.’"
The carnival tilt-a-whirl continues. The U.S. media can remark on each country as their contingent enters the stadium and give us various human interest stories, sometimes pointing out repressive governments, as they did when North and South Korea marched separately. When Chile entered the arena, did they remind us of how the U.S. assassinated their democratically-elected leader? Did they mention the number of countries the U.S. has bombed, structurally adjusted, and on and on?
At one point, the U.S. TV commentator mentioned in passing that the all-male contingent entering the stadium was all-male because "they don’t allow women to play sports." Say what? This is not a human rights violation because…? Shouldn’t this be part of the Olympic Code that a country that denies participation to half the population should not be able to attend the Games?
Meanwhile, a smiling Bush meets with dignitaries, expresses concern and disapproval about Russia’s actions in Georgia, the state of the environment in China, Chinese actions in Tibet, and then chats with Kobe Bryant and high-fives bikini-clad female volleyball players because he’s just a good guy who loves sports.
Excuse me while I puke. Not political? Are they joking? The Olympics have always reflected dominant ideologies, values, and institutional arrangements, whether they are displays of war prowess, an expression of a patriarchal, classist, racist society, a vehicle for Nazi propaganda about the superiority of the "Aryan race," or a venue for Cold War rivalries, not to mention the corruption, commercialism, and politics behind choices of host cities. Plus, according to Rome 1960 author David Maraniss, a CIA recruiting vehicle—i.e., getting U.S. athletes to spy on Russian athletes who might defect, with much media fanfare, to the U.S.
Surely there will be one protest somewhere in Bush’s vicinity, some brave athletes who will set the record, if not straight, at least suggest a different version of things or put things in perspective. Perhaps a nod to the fact that the first Olympics were nationalist celebrations of military (and male) prowess that excluded "foreigners, slaves, dishonored persons, and women."
Surely, someone, some group will stop this global carnival ride from spinning on this, the 40th anniversary of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, only the second games held in Latin America and only the second ever outside Europe, Australia, and the U.S.—a political statement in itself. Perhaps we can be inspired by a time in history when athletes, affected by what was going on in the rest of society, spoke up.
The 1968 games were preceded by the Tlateloco Massacre in which hundreds of students were killed by security forces ten days before the opening day. The students had demanded, among other things, repeal of Articles 145 and 145b of the Penal Code (which sanctioned imprisonment of anyone attending meetings of three or more people, deemed to threaten public order); abolition of the tactical police corps; and freedom for political prisoners.
The massacre began at sunset when police and military forces—equipped with armored cars and tanks—surrounded Tlateloco Square and began firing live rounds into the crowd, hitting not only the protestors, but also bystanders, including children. Mounds of bodies soon lay on the ground as the killing continued through the night.
In 2003 the role of the U.S. government in the massacre was made public when the National Security Archive at George Washington University published records from the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, the FBI, and the White House, revealing that "the Pentagon sent military radios, weapons, ammunition, and riot control training material to Mexico before and during the crisis," while "the CIA station in Mexico City produced almost daily reports concerning developments within the university community…from July to October."
After some discussion of cancelling, the Olympics opened as planned. On October 16, American Olympic athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race in a then-world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’s Peter Norman second, and American Juan Carlos in third. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. Smith and Carlos received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Carlos wore beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched or killed.
All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. Sociologist Harry Edwards, founder of OPHR in 1967, had urged black athletes to boycott the games. OPHR had three central demands: 1. restore Muhammad Ali’s title; 2. remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee (a known white supremacist, Brundage allowed Adolf Hitler to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin); 3. dis-invite South Africa and Rhodesia to express solidarity with the Black freedom struggles in these two apartheid states.
Both Smith and Carlos intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his. Norman suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove, this being the reason he raised his left hand, thereby differing from the traditional right-handed Black power salute. During "The Star-Spangled Banner," Smith and Carlos salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world.
Then-IOC President Brundage banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. When the U.S. Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games. (In 1997 Smith received the Sportsman of the Millennium award; Carlos worked, at one point, for the Olympic Organizing Committee for the Los Angeles games.)
In July, BBC Four broadcast a documentary, Black Power Salute, by Geoff Small, who noted in an article that the 2008 British Olympic team was asked to sign gag clauses restricting their right to make political statements. But they refused. Well, that’s something. Perhaps, if these U.S. generated "troubles" persist, we will see protests at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver that are as creative and inspiring as Smith and Carlos’s raised fists in 1968.
Lydia Sargent is a co-founder and staff member of Z, as well as a former high school athlete. She also has a Masters in sports from Boston University.